LIFE+ | Caring for child survivors

My name is Boyko Tsenkov. I am a psychotherapist, and I am currently working on a project on sexual violence against children. As part of this project, we have developed child-friendly and age-appropriate communication materials to raise children’s awareness about sexual violence and help preventing it. We developed also various guidelines for parents and professionals working with children. We have created an online platform where children and their families can report sexual violence and receive psychological support and counselling, as well as legal assistance. Additional information about the project is available at:

An experience of severe violence can render a child confused, unable to understand what has happened or speechless. In some cases, especially of sexual violence, the perpetrator might have said to the child that this was their secret or might have used threats on the child or his/her family. Often the child wouldn’t share what happened with anyone. It takes a lot of efforts and courage to open up and report. What follows is a long and hard legal procedure. Access to justice is really crucial for the psychological recovery of the victims of such crimes. However, sexual violence causes a lot of shame and confusion in a child due to the child’s thinking which might be characterized as self-centered. This mean that the child feels responsible and guilty for many things happening around them. Our project website allows for the child or someone close to them to report sexual violence. They can also receive counselling by a trauma psychotherapist.

A specific kind of psychotherapy is required to help a child survivor to overcome such a traumatic event. Every child experiences such trauma in a different way and their emotions manifest differently – ranging from forgetting the event to having nightmares or flashbacks. In some cases, a child could react very normally, as if nothing has happened. As a trauma psychologist, I can say that in most cases the human brain is trying to retain the overwhelming experience and process it. However, because these emotions are too intense and disturbing, a part of the experience is split and suppressed, which creates a psychological disbalance - as result of that, in the course of time a person can develop depression, anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. So, a trauma specialist, by using toys, muppets, drawings, talks and different art techniques, can support the child to rearrange this experience so it’s more bearable.

So far, I have worked mainly with Bulgarian children, but psychological counselling is available also to asylum-seeking and refugee children at risk of or having experienced violence. This job triggers multiple emotions in the therapist too, listening about the pain and suffering of another person might be very disturbing. On the other hand, it also shows the uniqueness of human beings who can find a way to recover even from the most unlikely of circumstances. Being a therapist often means to accompany someone in the process of discovering a way to restructure one’s thoughts, emotions and fears. This discovery is being born in the dialogue between a client and a therapist similarly to when a human being is being psychologically “born” in the dialogue between a mother and her baby. When it comes to working with children, this adventure is much more emotionally intense, and it almost requires of the therapist to take off his adult hat and put on a child hat and start playing with the child.

Prevention is a very important part of the work. Although it might not be possible to prevent every tragic story of child abuse or other kind of violence, prevention is crucial in a variety of risk situations such as school bullying, online safety, gender-based violence. There are three main skills crucial to prevention: a) emotional knowledge, b) critical thinking and c) respect for bodily autonomy and personal space. Building a child’s capacity to know better his body and his boundaries is crucial for that, so as part of the project we develop communication materials about the bodily boundaries and how everyone have a right to bodily autonomy or to have their bodily boundaries respected by others. It is important when writing for children to take on board their perspectives, so we run focus groups with school children on violence and bullying in school to test our information and communication materials with both Bulgarian and refugee children.

During the focus groups we talked with Arab, Iranian and Afghani children about how they felt in school at first when they arrived and how they are feeling now; what they like and what they don’t like in school, what are their relationships with other children in their class. We also asked them if they knew about a case of violence against another child around them. What the children shared was that at the beginning it was difficult for them to understand if someone was trying to insult them or was having a negative attitude towards them because they couldn’t speak Bulgarian well. It takes some time for children to settle in the school and learn the language better.

Based on what the children shared, Muslim children I talked to didn’t seem to have a clear understanding about what constitutes violence beyond the physical aspects of it. It was also challenging for them to trust me and share about their own experiences of violence. They often told in interviews that they would rather share about an instance of violence with their parents or with people from their inner circle. Overall, the topic of violence provoked anxiety in them and it was important for them to come across as capable of coping. Even more challenging was the topic of gender-based violence and relationships between boys and girls. Many of the children were coming from more conservative families. In addition, the experience of hardship and risk on the path to asylum often shifts collective perceptions of violence when a community had to desensitize and ignore multiple traumatic and painful experiences in order to survive. Therefore, it is crucial to provide an experience of different sensibilities towards violence and towards gender relations. Such different experiences can facilitate building a new perspective on violence or gender relations. However, we have to be mindful not to impose our perspectives but rather support the children in building their own perspectives. Any imposition of our model or perspective might be perceived as a form of violence and as such would be undermining the process of shifting children’s perspectives on violence.

by Boyko Tsenkov

Participant in

TC “Let them be heard” in Braga, Portugal


© Copyright 2020 by ICDET